David Roe could chomp a cigar and scowl across a bargaining table with the toughest of old-school labor bosses. But Roe, who died Monday at 92, was a new-school labor leader in the 1960s and ’70s — expansive in his vision of the labor movement, inclusive of women and people of color, sophisticated in his exercise of political power. Few of his contemporaries, in any state, were more influential.
As president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO from 1966 to 1984, Roe helped engineer the DFL gains that resulted in 1972 in full DFL control of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in state history. He was ready with an agenda that soon became law — the first state minimum wage, improved workers’ compensation protections, collective bargaining for public-sector workers.
When some union members hesitated to support W. Harry Davis, an African-American civil-rights leader, for mayor of Minneapolis in 1971, Roe made his own support more visible. When eight female employees walked off the job at a Willmar bank in 1977 in a quest for more equitable wages, they were snubbed by an international union but staunchly backed by Roe and the state AFL-CIO.
A champion for public education, Roe began a 12-year stint on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in 1981. He took a seat that had been reserved for decades for a labor leader, but he was no mere token. He was often outspoken in pushing to keep the university accessible to students of modest means.
Roe’s last contribution to this state’s civic life is a lasting one. For more than two decades, he sought to establish a place that would permanently recognize the sacrifices of working people in Minnesota’s development. The result — the Minnesota Workers Memorial Garden on the State Capitol grounds — was completed last year.
It’s no coincidence that the mural on that garden’s wall portrays an expansive notion of labor’s contributions and includes people of both genders and all colors. And that near its center, two small lathers are depicted on the job. Roe and his AFL-CIO lieutenant and successor, Danny Gustafson, rose to leadership from the lathers union. Those images don’t bear their names. But like their work, they’ll endure.